Reefs, Domes, and Dreams


Alligator Reef 1964-68

Editor's note:  This is the second of a three part series on my experience of diving, marine science and underwater photography in the 1960's. The first part appears in the previous issue (#11 for Mar/Apr 2003).




In January 1964 a story by Robert Schroeder and myself, "Photographing the Night Creatures of Alligator Reef", appeared in National Geographic Magazine. The images were like nothing people had seen before and night diving suddenly became something many divers wanted to try. That same month I departed on a four month long around the world trip involving diving in the Seychelles, Mauritius, the Great Barrier Reef, and Tahiti.

Once back in the Keys I began thinking about a dome port as the solution to use of extreme wide angle lenses underwater. Inquiries to Eastman Kodak and Corning glass indicated a price of about $20,000 to grind such a dome from a block of optical glass. At that time $20K would buy about 5 or 6 new mid-range automobiles. The idea was put on hold for awhile. Then one day I was visiting a relative and sitting on his coffee table was a marine compass. Suddenly it dawned on me, there was the dome I was looking for! I called a compass repair shop in Miami and found I could get a 5 inch dome for $15. I then called Bob Gilka, Director of Photography at National Geographic to borrow a Nikon F plus 21 mm and 8mm Fisheye lenses to experiment with. Both were expensive lenses and I think Bob was a bit dubious that I could do what the experts so far had not done but he was willing to let me try.

I quickly put together a crude housing using a section of heavy PVC sewer pipe with acrylic end plates and positioned the dome where I figured it should be. It had only one control, a shutter release. At first I tried a small 3˝" dome as the 5" one had not yet arrived. It worked! The image was a little soft, but still useable. In a few days the better dome arrived and I tried again. The results were perfect!

Both the 21 mm and fisheye lenses had optics that projected behind the lens mount and required the reflex mirror to be locked up to use them. Viewing and framing was accomplished by small accessory optical viewfinders mounted on the camera's flash shoe. As there was no reflex view there was no advantage to the SLR camera body and I decided to make an adapter to use them with a dome port on a Nikonos body.

At the machine shop of the Institute of Marine Science in Miami I turned out a prototype and my friend, pioneer underwater photographer Gerry Greenberg, offered to have a few copies made for himself, me and National Geographic. Then we went on to use the dome principle to successfully house a Widelux panoramic camera for underwater use. This camera used a semicircular film path and rotating lens to create an undistorted 140° image on wide aspect format.

By then a year had passed. In July 1965 the first killer whale in captivity had been captured near the remote salmon fishing port of Namu in northern British Columbia. It had been accidentally surrounded by a salmon net and was being held while a large floating cage was being constructed to bring it to Seattle. Bob Gilka called and asked if I would like to try to get some photos. I went. Using an adapter I had made to attach and operate the fisheye Nikonos on a pole I got a few shots but the water was murky and while you could see it was obviously a killer whale close up the images were not great. After several days experience with Namu I decided to try getting in the water. At that time killer whales had a fearsome reputation and underwater experience of them did not exist. I had had various experience of dolphins both in the wild and in captivity and to me Namu seemed very similar. I entered the water just outside the net and when I approached it Namu came over for a look. It was only a salmon gill net, hardly noticeable in the 10-12 foot visibility. From a few feet away Namu looked awesome but showed no aggression. I took a few more pictures but the results were no better.

Subsequently Namu was taken to Seattle and we began to learn that orcas are not the bloodthirsty killers we imagined. In fact they, like all other cetaceans, treat us with a respect exhibited by no other large wild animals and in no way earned by own treatment of them.

As the ongoing Namu story developed in Seattle other photographers were assigned to cover it. One of these, a well know free lancer at the time, was lent the Nikonos fisheye adapter I had sent National Geographic. The Geographic typically takes a long time to publish stories and before the Namu story eventually appeared Popular Photography came out with a feature on Namu and on the amazing new underwater fisheye adapter developed by…, you guessed it, the free lancer, who was now selling his own (optically deficient) copy of the adapter. Neither National Geographic nor Popular Photography were very happy with the photographer involved and Popular Photography published a correction in the next issue.

The next year a similar thing happened when some photos I had lent an early underwater photo equipment company in the Keys for promotion purposes were entered under the name of the company president into the premiere UW photo contest of the day. Two won first place awards.

It appears the prospect of immediate fame and gain totally blinds some personalities to obvious and almost certain consequences. Numerous examples of high level corporate and political misconduct repeatedly follow the same pattern.

For myself, I was more amused by the stupidity than annoyed by the attempted thefts. Some wondered why I was not more concerned but I had lost nothing and the smidgeon of recognition involved did not seem to have any real relevance to the future I was aiming toward.

Meanwhile SLR technology was advancing rapidly. Macro lenses, action finders and through the lens metering offered obvious advantages and required little or no adaptation to use underwater. Electronic flash synchronization was at first effected by semi-permanent connections that had to be made on the surface. This was reliable but clumsy and after some trial and error I came op with a solution using a small battery and capacitor in the camera housing and a simple SCR (silicone controlled rectifier) circuit acting as a high-speed solid-state relay in the flash housing. With this setup a non-water tight external connection could be used to connect camera and flash thus enabling easy reliable flash connection at any time, even underwater. Unfortunately all of the extra leads involved in today's TTL flash precludes this approach today as flash synch connection is still a major source of problems in underwater photography.

Commercial housings were beginning to appear and by the end of the decade the latest and best photo technology were available to anyone. All you needed was money. More and more I was attracted to film. Far fewer were doing it. One could show things to which still images just couldn't do justice. There was only limited off the shelf equipment available and thus more opportunity to develop technology to do things that were not being done. Also there was much better budgets and return from TV than there was from print media. Nice too was the opportunity to see many films through to the finished product instead of having editors make hash of one's work as so often happens with print.

On the reef itself I was beginning to acquire both a broad view from many areas as well as an in-depth perspective from 10 years of ongoing work at Alligator Reef. The picture I was developing was quite different from conventional ideas of ecology many of which still persist today. It was obvious reefs are highly variable communities changing dramatically from reef to reef, area to area, and even on the same reef over time. Healthy reefs might comprise a half dozen species of corals and 100 kinds of fish as in the Eastern Pacific or 500 corals and 2000 fishes in the far Western Pacific or anything in between.

Nearby reefs can have quite different species abundance and from year to year the species on a particular reef can shift and change. It was obvious these were not the intricately structured communities widely imagined but highly flexible systems that can assemble healthy communities from whatever the chances of distribution and larval settlement make available. Many different organisms can fulfill the same roles in the community and it does not matter who does what so long at what is needed gets done. Recruitment, food, habitat and predators limit species abundance. If one factor is not limiting another will be and other species adjust accordingly.

Many reef creatures are remarkably flexible in their behavior. Competition may restrict them to a narrow niche but in its absence they can and do take advantage of opportunities one would normally never expect. Reefs are not the delicately balanced house of cards ready to collapse at a nudge as popularly imagined. They are really quite robust and flexible with a surprising capacity to shift and accommodate to significant changes and pressures.

In September 1960 severe hurricane Donna hit the middle Keys. In addition to massive damage ashore, at Alligator Reef it uprooted and smashed corals and coral rubble scoured the reef to barren rock and sand down to a depth of 20 feet. Offshore in deeper water corals were unbroken but largely smothered in a thick blanket of silt. I had already been diving the area for five years and knew it well from hundreds of dives. Looking at the barren reef shortly after the storm one would have expected it to take many years to recover but I also knew that an even more severe storm had swept the area some 25 years earlier and the reef had recovered. Donna presented a chance to watch it do so again.

Within three weeks of the storm the bone-white rubble and rock were covered in a thick tannish growth of blue-green algae. In a couple of months various brown, green and red algae had begun to take over. In a year gorgonians were prominent again and stony coral colonies were beginning to appear. Five years later a casual observer would be unaware that anything had happened. On the deep reef rough weather and currents dispersed most of the silt within a year. Amazingly, much of the attached life survived the siltation.

If one is aware of what regularly occurs in nature million dollar fines for accidental ship groundings and large scale programs to artificially re-establish coral growth afterwards does not leave one with great confidence in the managerial competence of the institutions involved.

In my ten years of work at Alligator Reef over 20,000 scientific specimens of fishes were collected. This work recorded what is still the greatest number of fishes known from any single locale in the New World. The total was five hundred seventeen species.  Sixty of these had never before been found in U.S. waters and 19 were previously unknown to science.

During the period from 1964 through 1968 while I was further developing underwater photo equipment and becoming more involved with filming my main activity was not this but was the biological research. I had research grants and contracts from the National Science Foundation, the Office of Naval Research and the National Geographic Society. I had also started a company to manufacture various equipment I had developed. Although all this was interesting and kept me busy I was very aware that success could be a trap and I did not want any of these things as a long term career. What I really wanted was to build my own extended range research vessel and spend my time on and in the sea, exploring remote reefs and islands well away from the worlds of business, academia and the media.

It was dream that was to become reality.